UK the punchbag for an EU reeling from eastern failures
The EU is both unloved and deeply fragile due to the sheer volume of policy failures it has accumulated. Attacking the UK with its transaction tax is unlikely to preserve an increasingly threadbare unity
It is understandable why the acquiescence of German economic and political decision-makers, and indeed much of public opinion, towards Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine, has provoked criticism and concern. Germany has been the loudest exponent of a peaceful vision of Europe based on economic integration and peaceful means of resolving differences.
But this vision of Europe appears increasingly romantic and rhetorical not just owing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Over the EU’s own marathon financial crisis Germany has adopted a strategy designed to buttress what are seen as its chief national interests. It has rejected a common European energy strategy in favour of a bilateral oil deal with Russia. This has caused bitterness and fear in Poland and the Baltic States just as Germany’s insistence on Mediterranean austerity to overcome problems (ones partly originating with decisions made in Germany and France) has evoked similar reactions in the stricken countries on the fringes of the Eurozone.
Germany, in its dealings with Russia, carries a great deal of historical baggage as well as being motivated by the huge amount of trade that it does with that country. But it is too easy to assume that the values of a common Europe are fading due to being suitable for a specific historical epoch that is reaching its end.
There is genuine confusion in Germany due to deeply dysfunctional European institutions in the foreign policy and economic realms which are incapable of projecting a European public interest. If the decisive Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski replaces the hapless Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief, it will make some difference, but probably only at the margins.
Southern European EU states, dependent on energy supplies usually from elsewhere, show even less inclination than Germany to join with the USA and Britain in countering Russian landgrabs. In the 1970s Spain and Portugal relied on the active intervention of the leading EU states to preserve fragile democratic openings from military and far-left backlashes. Licking their economic wounds, today these countries are parochial and only speak loudly about Europe when they feel that it is they that deserve help.
Italian patience with Europe briefly snapped in 2011 when a meeting of interior ministers of the EU refused to support the call from Italy and Malta for a policy that Open Europe described as ‘burden-sharing towards the growing volume of asylum seekers from North Africa.’ Indeed, Roberto Maroni, the Interior Minister, complained about “an institution which takes action quickly only to bail-out banks…I wonder if it really makes sense [for Italy] to remain part of the EU”.
Over the past 60-70 years, there have only been spurts of genuine European evangelism, with the pressure often coming from outside the leading EU members. Arguably, it was American pressure which provided the chief impetus for European integration in the late 1940s and 1950s and it was East European insistence on not being abandoned yet again which obliged a reluctant Francois Mitterrand in the 1990s to agree to the expansion of the EU from 15 states in 1995 to 24 by 2004.
There was plenty of opposition from within the EU to expanding the entity southwards in the 1980s because agricultural interests feared competition from Spain and Portugal. The opposition to German unification from France and especially Britain is well known.
The EU did massive long-term damage to its role of being an effective agent of unified action in crisis conditions by its paralysis in the face of the horrors of the Yugoslav conflict in the 1990s. Systematic warfare against unarmed civilians, meant to alter the human geography of territories like Bosnia, was treated as a humanitarian emergency until belated American intervention in 1995.
The EU has been slated for intervening too energetically in territories on its periphery, like Moldova and Georgia, thereby enabling a manipulator of national insecurity like Putin to claim that the encirclement of Russia was being brought about. He surely would have known that the EU drive eastwards was too weakly-based and incoherent to fulfil such a danger, especially with West European military spending plummeting.
Unable to project its influence outwards, it is quite likely that solidarity will be sought by pursuing deeper internal uniformity. This is probably only likely to get anywhere at a symbolic level. Thus, among the chief political blocs represented in the European parliament, there is a large degree of common ground for persisting with a financial transaction tax.
A ruling of the European Court of Justice, in its judgements usually a radical exponent of EU centralisation, has just brought this tax much nearer to fruition. It is meant to penalise the UK financial sector, the biggest casualties being small-scale investment companies.
It provokes a spurious solidarity against the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ pirates whom Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the architect of the would-be European constitution, blames for the EU’s systemic economic crisis. (See ‘Presse Ocean, 16 January 2012, interview with V. Giscard d’Estaing.’)
Feuding over sectoral interests has been part of the EU story since the 1960s. It is the type of shallow diversionary activity that suits the mainly mediocre politicians who now pursue a career in European politics. Behind the shrill leftists who argue that the goal of equality can be achieved by cleaning out Britain’s chief industry, there is of course rival financial interest in central Europe, eager to grab a large slice of that lucrative business.
But the EU is now both an unloved and deeply fragile entity due to the sheer volume of policy failures that it has accumulated. Ganging up on Britain in a spurious drive for ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ is unlikely to preserve an increasingly threadbare unity.
If it leads to Britain’s departure from the EU, it could result in a much bigger challenge to a fractured European order than anything yet seen in Ukraine, by encouraging other countries to follow Britain’s example.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. Manchester University Press is shortly publishing his book Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union
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